My practice: Sarah Baalham

Melanie Mackay* was 13 when she made a complaint about her social worker. This was some years ago, and she was one of the first young people to use our complaints procedure on her own, without the involvement of a parent.

We found (and funded) an independent advocate for Mel, but apart from that we didn’t really know how best to deal with her complaint. She was an articulate young woman so we dealt with her complaint in the same way as one from an adult. This turned out to be the best thing we could have done.

Since Mel’s case, we have dealt with an increasing number of complaints from children and young people themselves, mostly teenagers but some younger. We have talked with and listened to them all, and these are some of the things they have told us they found helpful.

  • Use plain English without jargon. Think about the language to use for each individual.
  • Think about the use of names – children often find a letter addressed to them in their first name friendlier.
  • Timescales are important, but if they know what is happening they will wait. Keep them informed all the way.
  • Face-to-face is better than letter or phone – we offer young people a meeting with the head of service at the end of a complaint investigation and they value the chance to be heard.
  • Involving an independent advocate is really worthwhile – and under section 119 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 is now a legal right for young people making or intending to make a complaint.
  • Children do not always want a new person involved; they often prefer things to be sorted out by someone they already know.
  • Confidentiality is important – a young person may not want their parents or carers to know they have made a complaint.
  • It is especially difficult for a young person living with foster carers to make a complaint. They are often concerned about the carers’ reaction, even if the complaint is not about them. If appropriate and possible, it is helpful to get foster carers “onside” and reassure them that the complaint will not count against them. They can then help convey the message to the child.
  • Even young children cope well with formal processes and appreciate being treated with respect, listened to and taken seriously. However, offer options wherever possible.
  • Be honest. In particular, it is OK not to uphold their complaints provided you explain why.
  • Young people need to know that their views are taken seriously and that things change or happen as a result.

    * Not her real name

    Sarah Baalham is customer care manager, Suffolk Council

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